Mindfulness Training Helps Teachers and Parents of Special Needs Children

Special needs children require a level of attention that far exceeds that of other children. Compassion, patience, and understanding are resources that are often quickly exhausted when addressing the demanding task of caring for these special children. As children enter adolescence, their disabilities become more difficult to manage and can increase the stress on teachers and family members. This creates a tension that impacts intimate relationships, relationships with other family members, and overall well-being of caregivers. For teachers, the quality of instruction they deliver to the rest of their students is compromised because of the increased stress. In fact, barely one-third of teachers believe they are qualified to address the many needs of these children who are integrated into their classrooms.  Replenishing the emotional resources of these key individuals is vital to the psychological and physical health of the disabled child, the parents, and the teachers.

Mindfulness training (MT) is a technique that is based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and teaches individuals how to reduce stress by increasing compassion, empathy, and forgiveness. This emotional regulation intervention was the basis for a recent study conducted by Rita Benn of the Institute for Social Research and Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan. Benn enlisted 52 parents and caregivers of special needs children and followed them as they participated in five weeks of MT. They were assessed for levels of compassion, forgiveness, and stress before the MT, shortly after week five, and again two months later.

Benn found that all of the participants reported increases in their awareness, patience, and compassion. Specifically, participants were more conscious of the way they processed their emotions and were less judgmental and more tolerant of others. Benn discovered that this effect increased with time, with all the participants showing elevated levels of awareness, patience, forgiveness, and compassion two months after the study. Teachers in the study also reported improvements in self-efficacy as a result of the MT. However, parents who were with their children for longer periods of time during the summer months in which this study was conducted, realized smaller gains in stress and compassion than the teachers. This finding could suggest that parents, who do not get nights and weekends off from caring for their children, may need ongoing MT in order to see changes equal to those of the teachers. Overall, this study demonstrates that implementing MT in a school setting can provide much-needed stress reduction and positive psychological effects for the caretakers of special needs children and for the children themselves, but even more research is needed. Benn added, “Key to this work will be an assessment of how and when MT affects observable behavior in family and classroom settings and what effects, if any, such changes have on children’s academic, social, and emotional development.”

Benn, R., Akiva, T., Arel, S., & Roeser, R. W. (2012). Mindfulness training effects for parents and educators of children with special needs. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027537

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  • hunter

    March 21st, 2012 at 11:28 AM

    This is something that any parent and teacher of special needs children can relate to.
    There is so much stress in their daily lives- it takes a whole lot of patience to deal with these children and their very unque needs day in and day out.
    Sometimes they just need some constructive ways that they can relieve the stress in their lives, and other times they simply need the confirmation that it is ok to take a little time for themselves from time.

  • Colton

    March 21st, 2012 at 1:58 PM

    Giving the providers of educational services for special needs children can only benefit both parties. Children innately know when the adults in their lives are frustrated, and for many of them this is so confusing and detrimental to their learning and development. They sense that there is a frustration there, they internalize this and come to see it as their fault. These are children who need an environment that is creative and engaging in which to learn, not one fraught with frustration and negativity. Care like this is sure to help all involved, from the classroom to the home.

  • cheves

    March 21st, 2012 at 3:20 PM

    I am sure that the parents of these children show the smallest amounts of improvement in symptoms because they have the leats amount of time away to decompress and relax. I know that the coping skills they have been given could help some, but sometimes a little time away if possible is what could really work wonders.

  • Andrea

    March 21st, 2012 at 8:06 PM

    Great article. I am a special needs mom and a therapist. This article was hopeful and helpful, and I will share it with friends and clients alike. Thanks, Andrea Schneider, LCSW

  • Cain

    March 21st, 2012 at 8:54 PM

    Caring for special kids can take a mental toll no doubt.The caretakers thus need support themselves and this will benefit not only them but the kids too.

  • Seth D

    March 22nd, 2012 at 4:21 AM

    Sometimes it is all about forgiving yourself for something that is not your fault, that you have felt the blame for for years, that will allow you to be set free from so much of that stress and allow you to give the most to the child in your care.

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